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Posse to the rescue

The Baltimore Sun

Old Mill High School senior Justin Riopelle had long thought that he would have to enlist in the Air Force or Marines as a way to pay for college. Two weeks ago, he learned that he would not need to take that step.

The child of an Army family, who has lived in seven countries, will attend Sewanee, the University of the South, this fall after being awarded a full-tuition scholarship from a nonprofit institution dedicated to nurturing a diverse crop of future leaders.

Riopelle, 18, of Pasadena has a 4.3 grade-point average, is fluent in Spanish and would like to study Chinese or Arabic and business. He is excited about the move to Tennessee because he has a "passion for traveling."

"I like to be challenged," he said. "I'm just grateful for this opportunity."

Riopelle and two other Anne Arundel County students are among 41 students from the Washington metropolitan area who received the scholarships from the Posse Foundation. Amanda Renvall of Annapolis High School will join Riopelle at Sewanee. Kyvory Henderson of North County High School in Glen Burnie will enroll at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

The three received their scholarship awards Thursday during a ceremony at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington.

The Posse Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit, is founded on the premise that students will be more likely to graduate if they have the support of their "posse" -- a group of fellow students from their area who are facing the same challenges.

The foundation has found that students from urban areas have had a hard time gaining entry to top-tier schools or graduating from them because they are suddenly plunged into an unfamiliar environment.

The scholarships are merit-based, but many of the scholarship recipients are minorities because they make up a large proportion of inner-city populations, said Deborah Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation.

The infusion of talented minority students into top-tier colleges could boost schools' diversity after a 2003 Supreme Court ruling limited the use of affirmative action, Bial said.

"There's been a backlash to affirmative action, so programs like Posse are more important than ever because they are achieving some of those same goals without focusing on race," she said.

This year, the Posse Foundation's Washington branch selected 17 students from Maryland, 16 from Washington and eight from Virginia, said Marcy Mistrett, director of Posse D.C.

In September, guidance counselors and community-based organizations recommended 1,100 students from Northern Virginia, Washington and three counties in Maryland -- Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's.

The foundation selected 41 students from that list through a three-month process that involved a group evaluation and one-on-one interviews. They looked at academics, leadership abilities and interpersonal skills.

Students expressed their preferences for one of four colleges -- Lafayette, Sewanee, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. The colleges interviewed the students and after they applied, offered 10 scholarships each. Lafayette offered an additional scholarship because of extra funding.

Weekly sessions to prepare

The Posse students will have to attend weekly sessions for the next eight months to prepare them for college. The process allows them to bond, learn how handle the rigors of college life and set up organizations on campus that promote diversity and communication, Mistrett said.

Each college's posse must meet as a group every week with a college mentor during the first two years of college. The mentor meets with each student individually twice a month.

Once in college, Posse students shine, Mistrett said. Since the foundation was started in 1989, more than 90 percent of the 2,100 Posse students have graduated from college, according to the foundation.

"They're powerful young people," she said. "They see opportunities, not barriers."

Renvall, 17, of Arnold emigrated from Finland when she was a toddler and learned English at school. She said she hopes to become a doctor and plans to major in physics or biology at Sewanee.

'A weight lifted off'

Having the scholarship is like having "a weight lifted off," she said. Now the International Baccalaureate student with a 4.1 GPA said she can focus on academics.

Renvall said she thinks her posse will be a great help to her in college, especially during the first few months of meeting new people.

"You don't have to go through that awkward phase," she said.

Henderson, 17, of Glen Burnie said he will study engineering and hopes to play football at Lafayette, although a "heartbreaking" knee injury in the third game of the season sidelined him for the rest of the year. His schedule is full with five Advanced Placement classes, as well as the Hispanic Honors Society, Student Government Association and the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) Club.

Henderson, who has a 3.6 GPA, said he eventually would like to work for the CIA or the National Security Agency. He said he thinks the Posse concept of support is solid.

"I've always believed that it's important to work together," he said.

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